The British Army and the people of Ireland: This is one complex love story

The British Army and the people of Ireland: This is one complex love story

By Henry Farrell

Best Defense office of ethno-military affairs

You asked recently whether the “British Army ever formally recognized and honored the role that Irishmen (not Anglo-Irish aristos) historically played in its enlisted ranks?”

The answer is yes, at least for World War I. Neither the British nor the Irish government was particularly inclined to celebrate the role of Irish soldiers in the British Army until quite recently. World War I split the Irish Volunteers into a majority under the sway of John Redmond, who supported the British in World War I (and in many cases volunteered to join the British Army), and a minority who opposed the war and the threat of conscription (which was nominally led by my great-grandfather Eoin MacNeill). The latter started the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, and won, more or less (the Irish civil war was fought between two sub-factions of this faction; as Brendan Behan once remarked, the first item on the agenda of any IRA meeting was always The Split). The former nearly completely disappeared from historical memory — nobody, except the Ulster Unionists, particularly wanted to remember the Irishmen who had fought on Britain’s side. Sebastian Barry’s extraordinary play, The Steward of Christendom, talks to this amnesia from the perspective of the “Castle Catholics” who had sided with the British administration. Frank McGuinness’s earlier play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, talks about it from a Unionist perspective.

This began to change in the 1990s, leading to an initiative to create a memorial to the Irish who died in World War I, which was folded into the more general peace initiative. The result was the building of a tower with financial support from both the British and Irish governments, commemorating the war dead from both parts of Ireland. The British and Irish army bands played together for the first time at its opening. The Wikipedia page on the memorial gives a good overview of the project and the politics behind it.

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. He blogs at the Monkey Cage and Crooked Timber.